Point of view
City of Kandy and
its hinterlands as an urban biosphere reserve
Biosphere Reserve: The Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Council of
the United Nations Scientific, Educational, and Cultural Organisation
(UNESCO) at its 15th session in December 1998 recommended the MAB
Secretariat in Paris to explore the application of the Biosphere Reserve
(BR) concept to urban areas and their hinterlands.
The Biosphere Reserve concept recognises the fact that it is possible
to achieve a sustainable balance between the conservation of biological
diversity, economic development, and maintenance of associated cultural
These are to be logistically supported by research and education at
all times. The validity of this concept is tested, refined,
demonstrated, and implemented in the Biosphere Reserves. Currently there
are 507 biosphere reserves distributed in 102 countries across the world
and the list is growing each year.
In Sri Lanka, at present, there are four biosphere reserves viz.
Hurulu (designated in 1977), Sinharaja (in
Temple of the Tooth surrounded by the Kandy Lake
1978), Kanneliya-Nakiyadeniya-Dediyagala (in 2004) and Bundala
An Urban Biosphere Reserve is expected to contribute towards
conservation and sustainable development through urban planning and
management focusing on ecosystem approach of the Convention on
Biological Diversity (CBD).
The ecosystem approach embodied in both the CBD and the BR concept is
a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living
resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable
Why Urban Biosphere Reserves? - The Context
A recent report of the MAB urban group states that about half of the
world’s population today lives in urban landscapes and this proportion
is expected to increase to two-thirds within 50 years.
The rapid increase of large cities in the developing world and the
expansion of urban landscapes in the developed world represent one of
the greatest challenges to ensure basic human welfare and a viable
A UN report states that by the year 2050, some six billion people
representing two-thirds of humanity will be living in towns and cities.
Never before in history has the world witnessed such rapid urbanisation.
Neither has it witnessed such a swift rise in the absolute numbers of
people migrating to the urban areas.
Majority of these people will be living in urban slums with limited
access to basic services, limited participation in decision-making
processes and facing extreme vulnerability to natural disasters.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) has recently identified
urbanization and urban landscapes as a priority area that requires
deeper understanding of their ecosystem processes and increased capacity
to adapt to the rapid and often unplanned urbanisation process.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was launched in 2001 as a UN
supported research programme that focuses on ecosystem changes over the
course of decades, and projecting those changes into the future.
The MA report stresses that in urban areas, green spaces and
vegetation may provide a number of ecosystem regulating processes,
cultural services (spiritual enrichment, cognitive development,
recreation, aesthetic experience etc.) and supporting services but the
diversity and complexity of processes demand innovative ways to manage
and maintain these services.
The urban landscapes probably represent the most complex mosaic of
land-cover and multiple land uses of any landscape. Consequently, they
provide large-scale probing experiments of the effects of global change
The human domination of urban ecosystems provide extreme, visible and
measurable examples of increased pollution, warming and associated
changes. Therefore, urbanisation places increased pressure on fragile
and vulnerable ecosystems.
The MAB Urban Biosphere Group has proposed the following working
definition of an Urban Biosphere Reserve (UBR). It is a Biosphere
Reserve characterised by important urban areas within or adjacent to its
boundaries where the natural, socio- economic and cultural environments
are shaped by urban influences and pressures, and established and
managed to mitigate these pressures for improved urban and regional
While some large as well as small cities in several countries have
already been declared as urban biosphere reserves e.g., Sao Paulo City
Green Belt Biosphere Reserve, in Brazil, the application of the
Biosphere Reserve concept to urban areas is being considered for New
York Metropolitan Area in the USA, Cape Town in South Africa, Seoul in
South Korea, Mexico City in Mexico, National Urban Park in Stockholm
County in Sweden, urban and periurban green areas of Rome, Italy and
perhaps many more in the wake of ‘nature consciousness’ among stressed
city-folk. Kandy and its hinterlands - A case for the first Urban
Biosphere Reserve to be proposed for Sri Lanka?
unique traditional values
Kandy, the cultural capital and also a green city is already
inscribed in the list of World Heritage Sites (WHS) in recognition of
its unique traditional cultural values.
The international World Heritage Programme contributes to
conservation of sites of outstanding cultural or natural significance to
the common heritage of humanity and Kandy was designated as a cultural
world heritage site in 1988.
However, as a Cultural World Heritage Site, Kandy is being recognised
internationally more for its rich cultural values and less so for the
potentially significant ecological values that the Kandy city and its
hinterlands could offer.
Therefore, an Urban Biosphere designation to Kandy and the ‘Greater
Kandy Area’ including its hinterland will give the area an international
recognition for the important cultural as well as ecological values of
the whole area.
Since Kandy is already a WHS, the UBR could be demarcated around this
protected area as in the case of Sinharaja which currently enjoys both
The primary objective of developing a proposal to nominate the
‘Greater Kandy Area’ as an Urban Biosphere Reserve is to strengthen its
ecological services to communities within the area as well as those
living beyond the designated area on all sides including the all
important down-stream Mahaweli areas.
Furthermore, it will help to develop eco-friendly rural enterprises
with eco-certification of their products and thereby preserving and
maintaining, as far as possible, existing traditional and healthy
lifestyles of Kandyan people.
Among the local and international goals of designating a ‘Greater
Kandy Biosphere Reserve’ would be the following:
- Provide practical ways to resolve land use conflicts and
to protect its relict indigenous biodiversity (Gannoruwa forest and
Hantana range are good examples) as well as naturalised
agro-biodiversity in home gardens and traditional silvo-pastoral
- Help create and maintain a healthy environment for local
- Maintaining ecologically acceptable and at the same time
economically productive landscapes,
- Reduce conflicts among people particularly on land utilization
planning and implementation, especially on steep slopes and valleys
- Encourage diverse local economies to revitalize rural areas
through eco-friendly innovations,
- Support and facilitate inter-disciplinary scientific studies and
monitoring and the Greater Kandy Area generally known as Vidya Raja
Pura has the benefit of a pool of scientists from a wide range of
agencies in and around Kandy,
- Provide greater opportunities and share ideas for education,
recreation and tourism to address conservation and sustainability
- Co-operate on thematic projects based on topics such as Kandyan
home/forest gardens, climate change, (mixed species analog forests),
- Celebrate cultural diversity and provide opportunities to
maintain existing traditions and lifestyles.
At a time when Kandy is grappling with containing and reducing the
atmospheric pollutant loads primarily because of its geographic features
being a basin surrounded by mountain ranges, the authorities need to
seriously rethink their strategy as to how it could bring back a healthy
and salubrious environment for which once it was renowned.
At the International Conference on Humid Tropical Ecosystems
organised by the National Man and the Biosphere Committee of Sri Lanka
together with UNESCO-MAB Secretariat in Paris, France and the National
Science Foundation of Sri Lanka and held in Kandy in December 2006, it
was agreed in principle, to look into the feasibility of preparing a
nomination of Kandy and its hinterland as an Urban Biosphere Reserve to
be submitted to the UNESCO-MAB Secretariat.
The nomination procedure involves a detailed submission of a
prescribed form together with supporting background documents, maps etc.
which need to be completed and approved by the authorities responsible
for the ownership and management of the core areas and buffer zones.
The Statutory Framework of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves
provides a guide to the Advisory Committee on Biosphere Reserves and the
MAB Council and its Bureau when considering Biosphere Reserve
Sri Lanka celebrated the World Habitat Day in Kandy on October 1. The
importance of recognising the cultural as well as ecological values of
Kandy and its hinterlands should be given due consideration and
eventually the ‘Greater Kandy Area’ would emerge as the first urban
biosphere reserve in Sri Lanka in meeting the challenges of rapid
The writer is Professor of Botany,
University of Peradeniya